Monday, May 2, 2011


I meant to post this last Friday but first life got in the way and then Osama bin Laden got in the headlines again and I've spent quite a bit of time over at MilPub talking about his sudden trip to nap with the fishes.

Real life here in Portland went on, regardless.

Friday evening was the annual Astor Elementary School carnival, one of the fundraisers that the school runs to pay for the things that the taxpayers of Portland choose to consider optional, such as gym classes and copy paper.The carnival is always madness, and this year was no exception. And we couldn't work our usual tactics, which is to show up right when it starts at six, run the kiddos through the games, and then grab a hat. We agreed to volunteer this year and our volunteer times were very late in the evening. So although we arrived early we had to linger throughout the evening, trying to find ways to evade the worst of the crush and entertain the littles.This year was odd, in that for some reason (lack of volunteers? Funding? I have no idea...) the school staff set out fewer games. Several parents I talked to commented about that being frustrating, although none of them would talk about volunteering to help with the things. In place of the missing games we had several additions that proved very popular; two teachers doing that twisting-balloon art, and the "sumo" thing that you tend to see at minor league ballgames complete with ginormous padded fake sumo suit. Here's Mojo the Yokozuna at work.I think the Emperor's Cup is safe for another year.The dunk tank was there; it always is, an evergreen favorite of the fractious youths. This year, as usual, a pet teacher or two condescends to be the target of a dozen or so initial throws, but then the task of dunkee is delegated to some hapless student-teacher like this poor girl.For some reason, either because of a misplaced launch line or improved throwing skills among the groundlings the girl was dunked repeatedly. The water itself seemed warm enough. But the evening was cool before dusk and grew rather chilly rather quickly. She seemed in some discomfort sitting there on her bench in the breeze, so I'm not sure if she didn't welcome getting dunked.

The crowd is always one of the best parts of carnival and this year was no exception; the people-watching is always more scenic when the weather is fair, and this past Friday the evening was an unexpectedly sunny and pleasant one.Astor draws from a very diverse group, for Portland. We have some relatively well-off Caucasians such as Mojo and I, although probably the majority of the white kids and their families are what I'd call "working class" rather than middle class, though they probably would insist that they, too, are "middle class", such is the great attraction and illusion of the Bourgeoisie, the Great Suburban Dream, even here in the People's Republic of Portland.We have a relatively small number of black kids, and I have to say that the black families show more social variety than any of the other groups at Astor. Many, probably most, are African-American versions of the working class white folks...but there are some genuine dog-ass po' folks and their offspring. Both Mojo and I were approached by the same little black girl who announced without preface; "Gimme some money!" Her parents, if any were present, were nowhere to be seen, and being good, reticent products of the middle class neither one of us could tell an eight-year-old kid to fuck off and get a job. But the temptation occurred to me.

The largest single non-Caucasian group (and Caucasians are the immense majority here in North as they are all over Portland and Oregon, as well...) are the Hispanic families, all of whom are virtually absorbed in Portlandyness except for the affectation for polyester fleece that afflicts all Caucasian Portlanders I have met.The look of the crowd is that peculiarly American mixture of inappropriately sloppy and dressy; ratty T-shirts with fuck-me pumps, sequined tops with scuffed and ratty sneakers. The men always look dumpier and scruffier than the women, although a truly obese American woman somehow manages to look less salubrious and less intelligent than her rotund sister in Latin America or Europe. I'm no better; I'm in my work clothes, jeans, T-shirt, light jacket, ballcap the same a half the other men. We're a bloody mess, really.I'm always amazed at the degree to which the notion of "public dress" completely delaminated in the United States after the Fifties. Look at pictures of earlier crowds, even in the depths of the Depression. Everyone has their "going outside" clothes on. Women are in dresses and hats, as chic as they can afford. All the men have jackets or suitcoats and ties. Everyone looks like they came from work, or church unless the photo is deliberately snapped in a coal mine or a factory floor. But Astor carnival is no different than any other modern public venue in the U.S.; a mismatched melange of dressed-up and dressed-down, a schizoid mess without any sort of notion of what the crowd wants to look like to others, and, I suspect, even what they want to look like to themselves.I should note that the hit of the evening was the balloon-benders, at least once the second- and third-graders discovered that they would make balloon swords, scabbards, and shields. In moments heavily-armed eight-year-olds were slashing their way through shrieking masses of unarmed civilians, slicing like a mad Ginsu chef with a new chopper.The boys and a handful of little girls played swordfight for most of the rest of the evening, happily solving the problem of "how do we entertain the children".Little Miss, being feisty in a more strategic way, opted for this balloon flower instead. "It's a flower that's a heart" she described it, which is nothing if not true. And as you can see, with or without flower she knows exactly how cute she is.My volunteer assignment was on the clean-up crew, and it was here that I encountered the peculiar disorganized organization that used to drive me utterly batshit when I worked in the teaching biz.

Work parties are fairly simple things. They need a place to assemble, someone to assign the tasks, the tools to do the work, and some simple direction. When I showed up at eight o'clock I wandered around until I found a group of teachers chatting and asked them where the person in charge of clean-up was. They pointed vaguely to one of their number, who lead me into the cafeteria and suggested I put away the materials from one of the games. That took me about ten minutes, after which I looked around for the supposed crew leader to find no one other than casual bystanders.

However, it was fairly obvious that nobody had been tasked to clean the cafeteria. This was a fairly simple job for a former GI, and I scrounged up a broom, dustpan, mop, and towels pretty quickly. I swept up the nachos, mopped the spilled juice, chipped the densified cotton candy off the linoleum and had everything in decent shape in half an hour.

No one came to check and see how I was doing or inspect my work; again, something I half-suspected based on my teaching experience. The goofy thing about this pedogogical haphazardness is that somehow, mostly, the tasks manage to get done. I can never figure out quite how. The sheer disorganization and randomness of the process offends my military soul. But this scattershot way of doing things seems to satisfy something in many teachers' sense of individuality or something. Any sort of more rigorous discipline seems to rub a lot of teachers the wrong way; I've seen it.Eventually I finished with the cleaning and wandered into the wonderful old Fifties kitchen. I love the clunky old mid-century equipment and the massive appointments, designed in a less-disposable time by people who expected the kitchen to stand up to years of hamfisted abuse from harried cooks and careless kiddos and keep working. There's a sort of sturdy grace in these creations that eludes the newer, sleeker models.

I stand in the night kitchen wondering how many other generations of parents and children have passed through here, through this most American of places, the public school. A waystation on their way to adolescence, then adulthood, and then as parents with children of their own. Did they feel this, this faintly surprised sort of possessiveness for a place they thought they'd left behind? This combination of childhood memory and middle-aged regret; the recollection of the dreams forgotten and the recognition of the realities ahead?But now the janitor passes jingling his keys, and the light streams out the doorway into the darkened playground beyond. It's time to cross the street, and walk down the block, through the soft Spring evening towards the warmly lighted windows of home.

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